Theology in a Postcolonial Key

We are pleased to welcome Barbara Glasson and Clive Marsh as President and Vice President of the Methodist Conference this year. Between them, with a new post the first Monday of each month, they will be contributing to our collective Theology Everywhere thinking by sharing theological reflections on their experiences across the connexion and the world. 

Theology in a Postcolonial Key

by Clive Marsh.

The challenge to ensure that we are all doing theology in a postcolonial way has been around for many years now. From Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner and Mayra Rivera’s co-edited Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire back in 2004, through Michael Jagessar and Anthony Reddie’s Postcolonial Black British Theology: New Textures and Themes (2007) to Reddie’s latest –Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Routledge 2019), and with a whole host of other texts from inside and outside theology in between, it’s been a hot topic. At the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies meeting in 2018 it was often on the lips of theological educators. But what does it mean? And what can it mean for White, male, Western, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual academics and churchgoers such as myself?

The first thing to say is that postcolonial approaches must be for everyone, though it’s probably precisely the likes of me that need to listen up first. The layers of privilege that have accompanied me through life mean that unless I do some hard work, I am less likely to deconstruct my colonialism in order to work out how to be postcolonial. But as a manifesto, postcolonialism has to be a serious call to overthrow any kind of domination in theology.

The second thing to note is that there’s a narrow and a broad definition of postcolonial. The more precise definition focusses upon imperialism, conquest, and its impact. The focus is on where land has been claimed and people have been colonized (and sometimes enslaved). Postcolonialism therefore refers to how generations of colonial behaviour have to be examined, critiqued and re-thought and what a future might look like in a way which does justice to those who have been colonized, once the powerful have been brought down from their thrones (Luke 1.52). A broader definition may refer to any form of domination so that theology has to be done ‘from the underside’. From this perspective, postcolonialism and liberation theologies converge in their interests. There could, though, be the danger of diluting, or spiritualizing, the edge which postcolonialism brings to theological debate. So care is needed, if a broader view of postcolonialism is adopted, that tough challenges are not dodged. Wherever power has been misused, then a re-think and a re-structure are needed. But re-thinking and re-structuring can sound tame where actual enslavement, violence and the crushing of people have been involved.

Third, postcolonialism has become a theory. This may be good in so far as it has taken on a life of its own, as a package of ideas and a set of commitments which need to be taken up and not simply ‘applied’ but used as a thoroughgoing method of thinking and political strategy to change society and behaviour. Yet as a theory, it always runs the risk of being an academic fad. Speaking to Zimbabwean educators recently I discovered some reluctance to accept the way in which postcolonialism has taken shape in the West. Though accurate in its critique of imperialism, it was difficult to applaud all of the ways in which postcolonialism was being used in the comfortable, wealthy universities of the West. One might have expected it to be welcomed in all respects in former colonies. But it is not so simple when sometimes the colonized have become a new type of colonizer. Postcolonialism needed, and needs, more nuancing.

The call for more nuancing raises a fourth point of particular consequence for theology. Postcolonialism can too easily overlook any positive dimension to missionary activity. Because of alliances of varying kinds between imperial domination and missionary activity it is understandable why the notion that nothing good could come from missionaries might be part of postcolonial thinking. Yet the missionary legacy is ambiguous and complex. The same education which transported too much of Western thinking disrespectfully into new places also provided the seeds of thinking which could overthrow the colonizers. Postcolonial theology, then, will need to absorb pre-colonial insights – God was already there before any colonizers came – and to examine carefully and critically how theology takes shape in colonial times, in order to see what postcolonial views of God should look like. But it is clear that postcolonial theologies will need to be quite assertive to ensure that God is still spoken of, and believed in, at all when much secular Western postcolonial thought may prefer to assume that God has, and should be, left behind.

Theology in a postcolonial key is, then, itself to speak against the grain. But such speaking must be undertaken with great care.

3 thoughts on “Theology in a Postcolonial Key”

  1. As an expat child and adult this is very interesting. Look forward to discussing it more with you, Clive. Probably after a year! Blessings for your year as vice president. Jo

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  2. I think there is a post – post-colonialism issue that is rapidly being highlighted by scientists. It’s ‘post-denialism’, referring to the paper by Prof Jem Bendell ‘Deep Adaptation’ and it challenges us to accept scientific evidence that climate change is now ‘non-linear’ (in other words, past the point of no return), and we need to stop denying that we cannot stop global social collapse.

    I know science isn’t the focus of discussion here, but maybe social collapse is. How do we see the bible speaking into this new reality. So lets start the discussion.

    As for post-colonialism, there is no colonialism on a dead planet.

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  3. Edwin Smith [1876-1957] Methodist minister/missionary and only missionary to be president of the Royal Anthropological Institute said in the 1940s that it was imperative to purge the missionary enterprise of cultural imperialism because when the empires fell Christianity was likely to be discarded with them in the post-colonial era.

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